Inclusive growth all across India | AISECT, EO Bhopal
Updated: Apr 7
This is the first of a two-part article on AISECT. For the second part, focusing on their scale and impact, click here.
There has always been a disconnect between country life and the big city, regardless of where in the world you are. In India, the rural villages often lack not only the comforts we associate with metropolitan living, but key modernities that improve life. Bridging the gap isn’t easy, let alone profitable for those with the means to make it possible. That however wasn’t the case for several engineers and academics from Bhopal in 1985 when they established AISECT. Today, they have grown to become India’s leading social enterprise, reaching well beyond Bhopal in the years since.
What lies at the heart of AISECT is bringing skills development to the most remote areas of India. The All India Society for Electronic & Computer Technology started as the brainchild of Santosh Kumar Choubey, an engineer by trade who came from the little known town of Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh. The small town boy wanted to bring basic IT awareness to the schools and villages in his hometown of Madhya Pradesh, in a time when personal computers were on the rise.
One of the biggest challenges he faced was that his Hindi-speaking children had to use English source material. Choubey went and translated these textbooks into Hindi himself, offering classes for anyone willing to learn, regardless of age. Once he made the material more relatable, the mission truly began for AISECT. Santosh’s desire to bridge the gap between the quality of education in urban and rural areas drove the work of AISECT. The reality for people coming out of these smaller towns is that they rarely ever get the chance to realize their full potential, mostly because the infrastructure isn’t set up for them to succeed. Though AISECT originally focused on introducing computer concepts, this was closer to computer literacy rather than coding and development. These rural communities received more practical knowledge on how to operate computers. What evolved after was more technical and industry specific skills education, covering metal fabrication, construction, retail, and healthcare among others. The skills gap is being addressed on a grassroots level, working with that enormous informal business sector that needs these skills. The result of this is around 15,000 partner skills development centres across the country.
Over the years, AISECT would grow in scope and subject matter, constantly scaling greater heights. With that also came scaling their ambitions to reach parts of India that would benefit the most from their model.
This meant doing two things: setting down roots, and being more agile. The organization has been innovative in how they get to where they were needed, no matter how far they needed to travel to get the job done. The methods that the organization employed were innovative to say the least, putting together the means to bridge the skills and literacy gaps in rural areas where few dared venture.
When reaching out to sectors that may not have electricity, poor digital infrastructure, and minimal computer units to work with, AISECT would pack everything in a van and go. The Yatra Vans as they were dubbed were used for awareness campaigns in 2000, making them a one stop shop for an introduction to the digital world for people who were encountering PCs for the first time. These vans would conduct computer based demonstrations, along with a number of other introductions to information technology in every town that they would visit.
The content that they use is highly localized, meaning that the end users would be consuming learning material in their native language, a challenge that very much exists across the Indian sub-continent. When the vans roll through to a town, they always sought to demystify the use of computers for those who had never seen one before. From there, this traveling campaign would direct candidates to training centers so that they can take their first steps into skills and vocational training at AISECT centers.
With the Yatra Vans, many semi-urban and rural people are able learn essential skills with AISECT. For some of the younger people, this also serves as a gateway to a college education, or a technical program that speaks to them. AISECTs venture into establishing formal education institutions started back in 2000 with the SECT College of Professional Studies, otherwise known as SCOPE College in Bhopal, alongside primary and secondary school offerings.
To this day, SCOPE is still active, but AISECT has taken greater strides to realizing their mission. One of those steps is the establishment of their own universities, five fully fledged private universities, all found outside of the big cities.
Their 60-acre campus in Kota-Bilaspur can be found in the predominantly tribal state of Chhattisgarh, making it the first of its kind in the country. Their Rabindarath Tagore University, found in the outskirts of Bhopal, is recognized as the first skill-based university in the country because of their skills centric academic thrust. At the RNTU, they offer students diploma courses for technically specific learning, to undergraduate degrees, and even post graduate studies, including law degrees.
In an interview for Education World in 2017, Choubey said that “our focus is on building skills for small industries and businesses”. He specifically mentions that construction workers, carpenters, plumbers, and even agri-workers need specific skills training. “Delivering livelihood education is our top priority. It’s not organized industry but the unorganized sector which provides 90 percent of employment (nationwide).”
Over years the formal establishment of the organization, AISECT saw them diversify from an IT focus, to a skills focus. For some, this may not sound very revolutionary. AISECT looks at technical learning that their applicants or students may already posses, enhance these skills, and eventually certify their students as skilled workers through government efforts. In some industries, like say for example carpentry or welding, this level of knowledge may allow for low level certification before AISECT intervention. After a few skills courses, graduates may be certified to the point that they can open their own businesses.
What has not been lost in this formalization of their efforts is AISECTs desire to empower the unorganized or informal sectors of society. AISECTs model ensures that those who enter their universities are employable, ready to work once they step out of school. Not only do they strive to provide quality education, the price of education is kept substantially lower than those of similar institutions in the big cities.
The Universities are attracting candidates from out of state, with some electing to attend one of the AISECT Universities because of the low tuition. The system that started out as purely social enterprise is now a self-sustaining enterprise made possible through sound infrastructure and a lot of effort. This however is only a fraction of what AISECT is currently working on.
Ever since 1985, they continuously work towards bridging the gap between those in urban centers and those on the rural fringes. In 2019, that gap is closing so much faster than you would think. The organization's dedication to serving a noble cause is one of the reasons why they were awarded the Hall of Fame award in this year's MyEO Engage Social Impact Business Awards. More than 30 years of life changing work will indeed create real, and sustainable impact.
This the first of a two-part feature on the work that AISECT is doing to change India as a whole. For the second part, focusing on their scale and impact, click here.Their work has created systems outside of education to improve lives, allowing AISECT to grow, and make such a dramatic impact. We'll be taking a look at their scale and impact more closely next week.